Ukrainian forces have fallen back in the face of Moscow’s biggest advance for weeks as Russian forces captured the centre of the railway hub town of Lyman and encircled most of the nearby strategic Severodonetsk city in eastern Ukraine.
Despite the apparent Russian advances on two of the major fronts in the war on Friday, Ukrainian officials insisted its forces were still fighting to keep control of the northwestern and southeastern parts of Lyman town, and holding firm at new defensive lines in the eastern Donbas region.
The Russian military’s advances show how momentum has shifted in recent days, and Ukrainian officials are characterising the battles in the region in grave terms, renewing their appeals for more sophisticated Western-supplied weaponry to counter Moscow’s firepower.
Ukraine’s foreign minister pleaded for “weapons, weapons and weapons again,” warning that without a new injection of foreign arms, Ukrainian forces would not be able to stop Russia’s advance on the east.
Fighting on Friday focused on two key cities: Severodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. They are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk – one of two provinces that make up the Donbas, and where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled some territory for eight years.
“There are battles on the outskirts of the city. Massive artillery shelling does not stop, day and night,” Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk told The Associated Press.
“The city is being systematically destroyed – 90 percent of the buildings in the city are damaged.”
An assault was under way in the city’s northeastern quarter, where Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups tried to capture the Mir Hotel and the area around it on Friday, the mayor said.
At least 1,500 people have died in the city because of the war since Russia invaded on February 24, the mayor said, adding that about 12,000 to 13,000 people remain in the city.
Those who have died were killed by shelling or in fires caused by Russian missile attacks, as well as those who died from shrapnel wounds, untreated diseases, a lack of medicine or while trapped under rubble, according to the mayor.
During the past 24 hours, Russian shelling killed four people in Severodonetsk, the regional governor Serhiy Haidai wrote in a Telegram post on Friday.
In Donetsk, the Donbas region’s other province, Russia-backed rebels said on Friday they had taken control of Lyman city, a large railway hub north of two more key cities that remain under Ukrainian control.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich acknowledged that “we lost Lyman” on Thursday night.
The well-organised Russian attack on Lyman shows that Moscow’s military was improving its tactics and operations in the war, Arestovych said.
However, a Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesperson reported Friday that its soldiers were continuing to counter Russian attempts to push them completely out of the city, and the Ukrainian forces were blocking the Russians from launching another advance towards Sloviansk, a major city a half-hour drive further southwest from Severodonetsk.
Russian forces have encircled two-thirds of Severodonetsk, Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.
The city is the easternmost major population centre still held by Ukraine forces in the Donbas, and Russia has been trying to trap Ukraine’s main fighting force inside it and its twin city Lysychansk across the Siverskiy Donets river.
Strongest advance in weeks
After being driven back from the capital Kyiv in March and from the outskirts of the second-biggest city Kharkiv earlier this month, Russian forces are currently staging their strongest advance in weeks in the eastern region of Ukraine known as Donbas.
The counter-offensive pushed Russian forces back but Moscow prevented Ukrainian forces from attacking the rear of Russian supply lines to the Donbas.
Now Russian forces have advanced and gained ground since breaking through Ukrainian lines south of Severodonetsk in the city of Popasna last week.
Popasna was a blasted wasteland of burnt-out high-rise apartments and shattered municipal buildings, according to Reuters journalists who visited.
On Thursday, Russian forces shelled parts of Kharkiv itself for the first time in days. Local authorities said nine people were killed.
In an overnight address on Thursday, Zelenskyy criticised the European Union for dithering over a ban on Russian energy imports, saying the bloc was funding Moscow’s war effort with a billion euros a day.
“Pressure on Russia is literally a matter of saving lives. Every day of procrastination, weakness, various disputes or proposals to ‘pacify’ the aggressor at the expense of the victim merely means more Ukrainians being killed,” he said.
Foreign Minister Kuleba also pleaded with Western nations to provide his country with more weapons on Thursday night.
“We need heavy weapons. The only position where Russia is better than us, it’s the amount of heavy weapons they have. Without artillery, without multiple launch rocket systems we won’t be able to push them back,” Kuleba said in a video posted on Twitter.
Kyiv says it wants longer-range ground weapons, especially rocket launchers, to help it win artillery battles.
US officials say the Biden administration is now considering supplying Kyiv with M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which can have a range of hundreds of kilometres.
Until now, Washington had held back from supplying such arms partly over concern of escalation should Ukraine hit targets deep within Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also warned that any supplies of weapons that could reach Russian territory would be “a serious step towards unacceptable escalation”.